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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Refacing Mecca - Plans to revamp Islam's holiest city are worrying Muslims around the world

At present the Haram mosque can hold up to 900,000 worshippers. The new plans envisage creating space for 1.5m people in the main part of the complex, with the intention of expanding capacity still further in the future to allow up to 3m people to congregate there.

Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, two respected and influential British architects, are among those who have apparently been approached to take on the project by King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s monarch whose list of titles also includes “custodian of the two holy mosques”. Their involvement has raised hackles in Saudi Arabia. Lord Foster may have won the prestigious Pritzker architecture prize but he is not a Muslim. The idea of a non-Muslim redesigning one of the world’s most important mosques has provoked deep unease in Saudi Arabia. And as only Muslims are permitted to enter Islam’s holiest city, were he to win the commission, Lord Foster would have the tricky task of seeing through his design from a distance.

Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect who founded the Haj Research Centre, which aims to preserve the history and architecture of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s second city, is apprehensive about the plans, reasonably pointing out that in order to design a mosque, you have to visit it. Mr Angawi has also expressed his concern at the apparent lack of Saudi involvement.

Even before the plans to give the Haram mosque a facelift emerged, many Muslims were uneasy about the renovations already underway in Mecca. The modern city bears little resemblance to the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Visitors to Mecca can buy a latte from Starbucks and a snack from KFC or McDonald’s. Moreover, the first Islamic school where Muhammad is believed to have taught as well as the house of Khadija, his first wife, are believed to have been destroyed as construction in Mecca has boomed. Critics such as Mr Angawi fear that if these plans go ahead, more damage will be wrought upon Mecca’s historic buildings. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s rulers don’t concern themselves much about preserving these historic sites because their interpretation of Islam regards venerating holy places as akin to idol worship.


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